Do Reformers Survive?

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"For more than a hundred years much complaint has been made of the unmethodical way in which schools are conducted, but it is only within the last 30 that any serious attempt has been made to find a remedy for this state of things. And with what results? Schools remain exactly as they were.''

What disgruntled citizen speaks so cynically of school reform? Could it be Ernest Boyer, Bill Moyers, Theodore Sizer, George Bush, a local anchorman, your next-door neighbor? It could be any of the above and more; critics are legion. It was, however, a gentleman named Comenius, and he spoke in 1632. Apparently, schools never were "as good as they used to be,'' and, like the poor, reformers walk always among us. They walk in greater safety if their reforms are confined to words, of course. A reformer in deeds, albeit they be minor and set on a small stage, has the life span of a fruit fly.

The former Governor of Louisiana comes to mind. Seeking new ideas, Buddy Roemer had the audacity to support a state superintendent of education from beyond the borders of the Bayou State. Compounding the felony, Mr. Roemer suggested that teachers be evaluated periodically at the state level. Addressing the needs of students first became the keystone of his educational philosophy. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, Governor Roemer had "the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity.'' He would have been better advised to model the officers in W.S. Gilbert's lyric, who "lead their troops from behind (They find it less exciting).'' Sic transit, Governor.

As a "former'' myself, I know whereof I speak. My foray took place on the local battlefield. About four years ago I was appointed superintendent of a deteriorating school system in Louisiana by a progressive contingent from the parish school board. I marched into the Deep South from Pennsylvaniawith hopeful flags unfurled. The first battle revolved around finance. Our district was virtually bankrupt, with a deficit budget and a million-dollar debt. All personnel had been subjected to salary reductions which ranged from 10 percent to 17 percent, and teachers had suffered additional income loss from a curtailed school calendar. Morale was not exactly optimal. Somehow this school system had depleted a surplus exceeding $10 million over a four-year period. Out of this mismanagement, the reformist school directors came to be elected and this nonparochial new superintendent chosen.

In the ocean of verbiage devoted to educational reform, words about finance contribute the smallest stream. That is understandable. Balance sheets are not riveting--unless they fail to balance. Then we must acknowledge that although it has other, more glittering facets, public education is a business. To operate successfully, a business must be solvent. Our district required a tax increase, and in Louisiana that involves a public referendum. The situation was complicated by a serious regional recession resulting from the decline in oil revenue. Salvation appeared in the genial form of a community leader who had deep roots, long tentacles, and a lifetime's experience in the "art of the possible.'' With his invaluable guidance, the school directors' courage, and six months of careful planning and of ceaseless work, two tax referendums were passed: providing a 12-mill property levy and a half-cent "sales and use'' tax. Since similar referendums were being defeated by 2-to-1 margins throughout the state, we felt that the voters had granted us a remarkable boon.

Wishing to keep faith and avoid future crisis, sound fiscal management and "accountability'' became a priority in my program as superintendent. One initiative that proved particularly efficient involved the contracting of maintenance and operation work to a national hotel/health-service firm. School buildings and property were maintained meticulously, and first-year savings approached 32 percent, along with a 4 percent reduction in expenditures for utilities. Financial accountability was established in all district business. Purchasing and contracts were taken out of politics and the "good old boy'' network to the neutral arena of a free market. Within three years the district had accumulated an $8 million surplus despite salary increases for all personnel which averaged 52 percent and a 5 percent increase in the number of employed instructional staff.

While a solvent system was an essential achievement, our parish schools were plagued with other problems. We enjoyed the dubious distinction of having one of the worst records for daily pupil attendance in the state. Our dropout ratio, conversely, approached the ceiling. Within two years our attendance reached a daily average of 97 to 98 percent, one of the best records in the nation. Our dropouts decreased by 75 percent, to one-half of 1 percent, the lowest in the state. These changes resulted from innovative programs, new policies, and improved utilization of the staff. An active recruitment program brought new personnel, significantly reducing the teacher-pupil ratio and providing more individual attention for students. Changes and reassignments were carried on at the administrative level. Accountability was established in all departments and in every position. Student scores began to improve dramatically on standardized achievement tests. A modest renaissance seemed to be taking place. One of the less effective districts in the state was becoming one of the best. We were recognized by the Governor and state superintendent as "a beacon light'' for our rapid advancement.

The light dimmed. Four of the five reform-minded school directors were eventually turned out of office. The board began to dismantle the new program piece by piece. When it became obvious that I was checkmated, I did not seek a new contract as superintendent ... Last year district revenues from sales tax, oil, and other sources increased by over 17 percent, but under new board leadership the school year ended with a $2.3 million deficit. The district is currently operating with a budget deficit exceeding that amount, and there are rumors about a future salary cut again. For reform in the real world of the public schools, nothing may fail like success.

What is the point of this sorry tale? First, it is to serve as a reminder that a grand canyon exists between the word and the deed. A great chorus surrounds the canyon's edge singing a dirge deploring the horror of the nation's schools. Soloists emerge to offer a variety of solutions, point/counterpoint ad infinitum. That's entertainment. Simultaneously, anonymous crews attempt to scramble up the mountain's sides. They are teachers, administrators, school directors, support staff, the people who must make do. They are the armies of the day, and often they fail. That's labor.

Secondly, my tale is a warning. Never underestimate the power of the status quo. America's public schools are big business with imposing employment and purchasing capacities. In some communities the school system is the largest single employer. This fact gives rise to strong special-interest groups, such as the National Education Association. Jealous of their position and prerogatives, perhaps justifiably threatened by changes they do not control, these entities can outlast reformers and dilute reform. America's schools are part of government, subject to public whim and will. By and large, we have the kind of schools that people want. While they acknowledge a need for improvement in other people's schools, most Americans are reasonably content with their own.

"Familiarity breeds contempt,'' John Dewey wrote, "but it also breeds something like affection. We get used to the chains we wear, and through custom we finally embrace what at first wore a hideous mien.''

Vol. 12, Issue 03, Page 36

Published in Print: September 23, 1992, as Do Reformers Survive?
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